Interview

The extraordinary story of The Only Ones’ Peter Perrett, a man who’s only just discovered the Internet

Four decades after the release of their defining anthem 'Another Girl, Another Planet', Peter Perrett is emerging from 20 years of drug-fuelled exile to make music again

Peter Perrett is one of the great ‘could have beens’ of the punk era. An enigmatic force fronting The Only Ones, his songs combined a razor-sharp sense of melody and a dark, sardonic wit, making him one of the more unique voices of the late seventies. By rights, The Only Ones should have an honoured place in punk’s pantheon, standing alongside The Buzzcocks, The Jam and The Undertones. They bridged the gap between the genre’s original shock troops and the more melodic new wave acts that followed.

It wasn’t to be. A familiar tale of excess and addiction (particularly heroin and crack cocaine) curtailed the band’s career. Despite releasing three well regarded albums between 1978 and 1980, The Only Ones have become a pop culture footnote. The band’s big hit, ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’, is a soaring riff-laden memorial to a band with so much promise who never really gained the notoriety they deserved. As for Perrett, he continued along the path of nihilistic decadence laid out in that song, spending almost twenty years in a drug fuelled exile.

Notwithstanding a brief comeback in the mid-nineties, it looked like Perrett was done with music, but in 2007 The Only Ones were asked to reform on the behest of The Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis, who had been asked to curate an ATP. Although he wasn’t well enough to really enjoy it, it did relight the need to make music again, and Perrett’s wife Zena struck while the iron was hot and quickly booked him a short solo tour. Playing some new material and appearing on stage with his kids Jamie and Peter Jr, the shows attracted passionate audiences and glowing reviews.

Spurred by this new sense of momentum, forthcoming debut solo album ‘How The West Was Won’ is the fruit of Perrett’s first studio sessions since 1996. Due for release on Domino later this month, it’s a remarkable, raw-sounding piece of work, blending stripped back, mature pop with sarcastic cynicism. Conceptually, it’s a record that covers a lot of distance, with songs tackling issues as diverse as mental health, addiction, mortality, US cultural hegemony and Kim Kardashian.

If Perrett’s tale is a cautionary one, it’s also one without woe or regret. Many might think that ‘How The West Was Won’ is an exercise in redemption or making up for lost time, but Perrett doesn’t really see it like that. You get the feeling that his life has always been a choice between hard drugs and music; it’s just that now, at the age of 65, he’s picked music once again. I met him near his home in north London.

“I didn’t go out of the house for a few decades”

… and probably didn’t get out of bed for a few years, so actually doing stuff has taken some adjustment. It’s all been a shock to the system. This week I’ve been shooting videos, playing gigs in Berlin and editing, so I probably won’t have the energy to do anything by the time the weekend rolls around. I’ll be quite happy just to lay on the bed and recover.

Doing nothing isn’t the best way to live your life, but it’s the choice some people make. I much prefer to be making music. I’m really pleased that it’s the only passion in my life now. It’s so nice to be able to do it properly. When you’re young you have other passions in your life, like girls, drinking and partying and stuff, and music becomes a bit of a side-line. On this album, it feels like the first time that I’ve been able to concentrate on it properly.

“I hadn’t even played the guitar in years”

I only picked up the guitar again when The Only Ones reformed in 2007. Warren Ellis from Nick Cave’s band was curating an ATP and asked if there was any chance of us getting back together to play the festival. We did it but I felt that I was there physically, but I wasn’t there mentally. I don’t think I was strong enough to do myself justice.

It was only in 2015 when I got myself healthy. I stopped smoking cigarettes and joints and that helped me to recover a bit of my energy. My wife booked four gigs in Amsterdam, London, Manchester and Bristol, and just playing the guitar with the renewed energy of being slightly healthier than I used to be was a revelation.

“I think if I hadn’t gone to sleep in 1980 then maybe it would feel a bit more like a job by now”

I’ve never approached music in that way. I’ve never really had the chance to become this jaded musician because I’ve only ever been a musician for short periods of my life.

I think I’m quite fortunate to be in the place I am now, because it’s like starting again. I just do what I do. I go into the studio, play live, and hope the songs come across. On the new album, I’ve consciously tried to make it as naked as possible by having the vocals mixed up loud. I think that my individuality is in my voice and my lyrics and it was important that these came across. Yeah, there’s room for great musicianship as well, but it’s important that the playing didn’t submerge the lyrics.

“If my sons were rubbish musicians, I wouldn’t play with them”

If you let guitarists get away with it, you’ll always end up with guitar pyrotechnics. All guitarists like to show what they can do, so you have to rein them in a bit. So, when it’s your sons it’s a lot easier to rein them in a bit, mainly because I’m used to having the last word.

If they were rubbish musicians I wouldn’t go near them in the studio. It’s because I respect them both as being masters of their instruments and having the taste to compliment the material. I think when they were little they were a bit intimidated, but now they’ve grown up and we have a give and take relationship. I always have the last word though. For example, ‘Living in my Head’ was done in one take, so it’s almost live. My son Jamie wanted to do some more takes, going, like, ‘I can do better, let me try some different stuff.’ I’d fallen in love with that one take, so I didn’t let him. It just flowed so beautifully.

“People can function drunk and high, but I don’t think you can do your best work when you’re distracted”

It gets in the way of music, that’s the problem. Some people don’t need to do their best work and people will still lap it up anyway, but who am I to pontificate on such things?

Both of my kids were in Babyshambles for about three months. It was good experience for them but they were never going to last that long. They had different lifestyles to what was going on. They’d grown up seeing stuff like that from a very close perspective and have never been enamoured by that kind of lifestyle. They don’t think of it of romantic and glamorous at all; they just aren’t impressed by it.

Some kids want to think of their idols as living on the edge and doing things that they’ll never do. I can understand the attraction of it, but I think it sort of takes away from the music.

“I’m what most people term an extremely political animal”

I don’t think people are going to listen to me if I start preaching. It was bad enough when Fidel Castro died; I got into so much shit on social media. We live in interesting times, but you need to maintain a sense of humour, even if it’s just gallows humour. You’ve either got to laugh or cry about stuff and I always think it’s better to laugh. You’ve got a president who is like a serious version of Andy Kaufman – a comedian who took the joke one step too far.

I think the political songs in the punk era came from the fact we were all young kids; and when you’re young, you tend to be angry about stuff, even if you don’t really have anything to be angry about. I mean, The Clash released ‘Sandinista!’, which was a profoundly political album about what was going on in Nicaragua at the time, but what was going on in England compared to now was like a utopia. Maybe there’s been a reawakening recently. I’ve only just been introduced to the joys of social media, but there seems to be a lot of angry people on there.

I don’t think ‘How The West Was Won’ is a political record compared to a lot of the songs I’ve written, but I’d probably never really put them on an album. I don’t think you can change people’s minds with a song. If you’re too serious and ram things down people’s throats then people will turn a deaf ear to it. You can’t bombard people. It was Mark Twain who said that you can’t turn iron ore into gold; it’s futile to attempt to do so.

“It was a real journey of discovery to figure out who Kim Kardashian is”

What makes me different from everyone else is me. I don’t think of songwriting as confessional, it’s something that I do. When I write a song, I don’t think, I’ll write about such and such. I start by playing the guitar, then I’ll start playing a chord sequence, then a melody forms and eventually comes the words. Nowadays, I edit the words a bit. I’m trying to get the words so every line is great, but what I’m writing about sort of just comes out of my head. Sometimes I surprise myself.

For example, there’s a verse on How ‘The West Was Won’ that’s about Kim Kardashian that just came out. It shocked a lot of people. Some people thought why is he even mentioning this person? It was like it was beneath me or something. It’s like I’m tarnishing the song. But for me, it was a real journey of discovery to figure out who Kim Kardashian is.

About four years ago, I learnt to use the Internet. I’m a big Tottenham Hotspur fan, so I used to Google Tottenham Hotspur and check out the news. As I was doing that, I kept seeing this news that Kim Kardashian had broken the Internet. I was like, what? I thought the Internet was like this infinite space with no limits? I was a bit concerned to find out that someone could break it. That’s when I first found out who the Kardashians were. Suddenly, they had become a part of my psyche.

“I avoid mirrors like a vampire – they tend to bring me back to reality”

There’s part of me that likes to shock people, even though I’m at a venerable age and I behave myself in most ways. The punk era was a fantastic time to start a band – it was like ground zero. It really cleared the decks, so if you were any good at all you got attention. I’m grateful to punk; that environment was great if you were an artist who wanted to say something a bit different. Finally, we were being listened to.

I don’t think I’m growing old disgracefully, because in my head there’s a part of me that still thinks I’m 25. That’s the trouble when you head goes into an internalised fantasy world. When I emerged again I still thought I was 25 – there was no real emotional development at all. Even now, I avoid mirrors like a vampire – they tend to bring me back to reality.

I’ve kind of faced facts now, and I’m really enjoying life. I feel like I’m functioning well on something that I’m actually good at without all these distractions. I can’t wait to be back in the studio and record some new songs.

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